Iran’s Islamic State Problem Isn’t Going Away

Tehran's military adventurism in the Arab world is finally creating blowback on Iranian soil.


On Sunday, six ballistic missiles launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched from western Iran, and came crashing down on their targets in Syria’s eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor. The attack, Iranian officials said, was retaliation for the Islamic Sate’s June 7 terror attacks in Tehran, which left 18 people dead.  An IRGC spokesman said the attack was also a “warning message” for the terror group’s “regional and international allies.”

Iran’s top leadership has left little doubt who it believes those allies are. In an earlier speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to President Donald Trump’s remarks accusing Iran of being the godfather of terrorism in the Middle East. “You [the United States] and your agents are the source of instability in the Middle East,” the Iranian leader charged. “Who created the Islamic State? America.”

Iran’s terror problem, however, cannot be resolved by lobbing ballistic missiles at eastern Syria or rhetorical bombs at the United States. The June 7 terror attack by five lightly armed but well-organized terrorists against two of Iran’s top landmarks — the parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic — serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of blowback from Iran’s multiple interventions in the Arab world. Without some kind of introspection, Iran will likely remain in the line of fire of Sunni jihadis for a long time to come.

Invincible no more

While all five of the Islamic State terrorists were Iranian nationals hailing from Kurdish-populated regions on the border with Iraq, the deadly sectarian worldview that they espouse is very much imported from the vicious, years-long wars in Iraq and Syria — wars that Iran, through its military interventions, has helped intensify and prolong.

The Islamic State is vowing more attacks are to come. In a video claiming responsibility for the attack, the group promised, “Tehran [will be] transformed into open battlefields for the soldiers of the Islamic State.” In a video released from the attack, the Sunni Iranian recruits are heard saying: “Do you think we will go away?”

There is no reason to think they will. About 10 percent of Iran’s 80 million people are Sunni. This large minority lives predominately in the border regions: in southeastern Balochistan and the coastal regions of the south, and in Iranian Kurdistan, a region that spans much of Iran’s border with Iraq. The community has many grievances with the central government, from political marginalization to socioeconomic deprivation. But the vast majority of Sunni Iranians continue to see themselves as part of Iran, and hope for serious political reform someday. It is not a coincidence that reformist candidates have done best in Sunni areas: In the last presidential election, Rouhani scored his two biggest victories in Balochistan and Kurdistan.

For decades, Balochistan and Kurdistan have experienced limited, localized anti-government militancy motivated by ethnic nationalism and leftist ideology. This began to shift in the mid-2000s, when a growing number of ethnic Balochs and Kurds joined the bandwagon of Sunni jihad in neighboring Iraq. The focus of their attacks on the central government in Tehran shifted from it being “Persian” to it being “Shiite.”

The internationalization of Iran’s Sunni jihadis really took off with the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014. In Balochistan, the Sunni jihadi group Jundallah began to express solidarity with the Islamic State in its propaganda, and the Iranian Kurdish Sunni jihadi group Ansar al-Islam declared its outright allegiance to the group. Both groups, which are designated as terrorist entities by the United States, have remained small. Still, their transformation was nonetheless a direct result of a regional sectarian rage in which Iranian state policies are partly guilty of fanning.

Tehran was hardly in the dark about these developments. As early as mid-2014, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was ferrying Afghan and Pakistani Shiite volunteers to Syria to fight on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iranian intelligence services were arresting other kinds of recruits: Afghans and Pakistanis traveling though Iran to join the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the latest Islamic State propaganda shows not only that the organization has succeeded in recruiting Sunni Iranians to its cause, but that it is able to provide the kinds of sophisticated logistical groundwork that was needed to carry out the June 7 attacks.

Less than a week after the Tehran attacks, Iranian security forces reportedly killed four Islamic State operatives in the Hormozgan province on the Persian Gulf — not a region known for militancy, although home to a considerable Sunni minority. Another 41 alleged Islamic State members were reportedly arrested on June 9 in different locations around the country.

Meanwhile, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi says that Islamic State plots are intercepted daily. That sounds like an attempt to exonerate the authorities for failing to stop the June 7 attack — but it is also a glimpse into the potential for far more Sunni jihadi actions on Iranian soil. In fact, Alavi’s statement this week suggests that the authorities in Tehran have in the past methodically downplayed the local Sunni jihadi threat.

What forward defense?

For years, Iranian officials have justified their intervention in the Arab world with the mantra, “We have to fight them in Iraq and Syria so we don’t have to fight them at home.” Now that the Islamic State has exposed the futility of that strategy, Tehran has a choice: It can reassess its military adventurism or double down on its policy of so-called forward-defense and take the fight to its enemies.

The initial reaction suggests that the principal architects of Iran’s costly Arab policy remain undeterred. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the attacks as mere “firecrackers” while Iranian armed forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri pledged to soon “teach ISIS an unforgettable lesson.”

Iran’s hard-line officials are also using the attack as ammunition against their regional opponents — and to drive home the point that they alone control Iran’s regional policies. Take Khamenei’s reaction: While the moderate voices in President Hassan Rouhani’s government largely avoided pointing the finger at anyone besides the Islamic State, the supreme leader went out of his way to lay the attacks at the feet of Iran’s principal adversaries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the aftermath of Rouhani’s big reelection victory on May 19, Khamenei has taken every opportunity to underscore that he still favors a revolutionary foreign policy. For the supreme leader, “revolutionary” means giving the generals of the Revolutionary Guards — such as Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, who was recently photographed on the Syrian-Iraqi border — a free hand to determine Iran’s approach to the Arab world.

And Khamenei, who is the commander-in-chief, is seemingly putting his money where his mouth is. In November, he appointed a new commander for the regular Iranian ground forces, the Artesh. The force has always been a conventional conscript army was structured to defend the nation’s borders, not act as an expeditionary force in foreign conflicts — but that may be about to change. The new commander, Kiumars Heidari, comes from a background in the Revolutionary Guards and has unveiled plans to convert some of the Artesh units into “mobile offensive forces” that can be in deployed outside of Iran.

It remains to be seen what will come of such plans, but it appears as if Tehran is experimenting with the idea of establishing a much larger offensive military force, modeled on the Quds Force. If so, this would represent Iran taking its asymmetric war capabilities to new heights and a sign that Tehran sees itself busy in regional wars for a long time to come.

Arguably, the IRGC’s experience from its involvement in multiple regional wars has taught it that plenty of Arab constituencies are receptive to its message and open to its patronage. The question Iran may soon have to confront is whether it wants to provide such patronage to the Arab world indefinitely, and at what cost. If the Iranian government is as committed to intra-Arab conflicts as it suggests, it could remain militarily tied up for years to come. To this day, the Iranian state has revealed no information about the financial cost of its operations in Iraq and Syria.

Doubling down

At a minimum, Iran’s rhetoric and military reorganizations suggest it is intent on further military mobilization. Whether there will be pushback from the Iranian public remains to be seen. The political space in Tehran for questioning Iran’s Iraq and Syria policy is limited, as a number of prominent political activists have found out. Take Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former mayor of Tehran and a prominent reformist, who was sternly reprimanded for merely suggesting that the solution of the regional wars might require more than just “money, arms, and killing.”

But if the costs of Iran’s interventions in the Arab world mount — in terms of money, or domestic security — the political calculations at home could shift as well. Nor can Tehran rely on backing from key allies such as Russia if it chooses to go down the path of fortifying its so-called axis of resistance.

When the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, spoke recently about Iran and Russia being in one front – together with Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah — the Russians were quick to grumble. Shamkhani’s effort to bind Moscow to the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas was said by Russia’s to be a distortion of Moscow’s policies. Shamkhani’s statement “has caused damage to Russia’s image and interests,” the article read. “True allies do not act like that.”

In other words, Russia is in Syria to secure its own geopolitical objectives — but has no interest in having Iran set the agenda for the future of the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Islamic State attacks in Tehran showed that the violent sectarianism on Iran’s doorsteps is moving closer to the heart of the regime.

So far, instead of looking inward for reasons why radical Sunni militancy has gained a foothold on Iranian soil, Tehran has doubled down on a military response to the problem. Iranian officials should know better. The IRGC, after all, has taken the lead on security in Balochistan since as early as 2008 — its failure to quell the threat shows that a strategy based on force alone will only treat the symptoms and not the cause of jihadi violence. The Islamic State’s attacks in Tehran is the moment for Iran to stop pretending.


Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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